Many recent phone launch presentations have been all about the camera. Most of the rest spend more time talking about their phone cameras than anything else. I can’t think of a single phone presentation I’ve seen in the last three years where the camera was relegated to a footnote.
Apple, Samsung and Huawei all want you to know their phone cameras are better than before. It is always true.
They’d also like you to think their cameras are better than their rivals. That’s a losing game. They are all excellent. But each excels in different ways.
You wouldn’t be disappointed with the camera in any premium phone. You might find one phone misses a camera feature you’d like, or is a touch weaker in some department. You might find one suits your style, works the same way you do or has a user interface that’s easier to understand. Either way, they are all good.
Phone cameras good, getting better
Indeed, phone cameras are now exceptionally good. So good that the stand alone camera market looks doomed for everyone except professionals and serious amateurs willing to part with lots of money.
Forget whinging about a NZ$2800 phone, the starting price for a full frame mirrorless camera from Sony, Nikon or Canon is about twice that. And then you buy extra lenses.
The low-end camera market is already dead. The mid-range is struggling. There is almost no casual stand-alone camera market these days.
It’s still worth buying a standalone camera if you want consistent great pictures
There are good reasons to buy a high-quality standalone camera if you want to take great pictures.
The physics of camera optics means that, in general, you get better images with a bigger and better lens along with a big sensor array. You also need some distance between the lens and the focal plane where light hits photosensors.
None of this is possible in a phone which is often less than 10mm thick. Phone cameras have small lenses. There is almost no distance between the lens and the sensor array. Sensor arrays are also small, usually smaller than a fingernail while a more traditional digital camera might have an array the size of a matchbox.
Phones have plastic lenses, which, on the whole, are not as good as the glass lenses in cameras. Plastic can distort images. Phone makers spend millions developing better materials and techniques to reduce this, but glass still beats plastic.
Phone cameras get around physical shortcoming with heavy duty computer processing. Upmarket phones have two or even three lenses. They combine their images to create better pictures. Most of the time this gets around the distortion.
Software does the heavy lifting
They do a hell of a lot of this in software. Which brings up an interesting philosophical point: Are they capturing reality or are they making it up?
You may wonder why phone makers keep putting faster and faster processors in their phones. After all, none of the last three or four generations of flagship phones have been slouches when it comes to handling most computing tasks.
The main reason for the extra grunt is to handle image processing. It’s a data-intensive task and phones have to do it in microseconds.
Phone makers love to tell you their models use artificial intelligence. Most of the time phones use the results of earlier AI work to inform their brute-force image processing. They don’t do on-the-fly artificial intelligence to process your pictures.
The results are impressive. When Apple gave me a demonstration of the iPhone XS Max, I was struck by how much like a digital SLR the results can be, in the right hands.
As much as I try, my iPhone or Huawei shots are never as good. I still get far better results from my ageing but trusty digital SLR. The pictures are often good enough to use in print.
If I was to buy a new camera, I’d go for a modern mirrorless design. Until recently this would have meant a Sony Alpha, but Nikon and Canon now have tempting alternatives. I can’t put my finger on it, but to my eyes Canon images look better, so the Canon EOS R would be my probable choice.
Mirrorless means the camera doesn’t have a traditional optical viewfinder like an SLR or digital SLR. Instead you see the same image that the sensors see. This makes the cameras simpler, smaller and lighter.
For consumers stand alone cameras are on a path to becoming a retro-tech thing like vinyl records or analogue music synthesisers. Professionals will go on using standalone cameras. But the market is slowing.
I still take a camera along when I travel overseas or cover a conference as a journalist. The more traditional controls easier to use, even if I spend most of the time on automatic setttings. When I need to fiddle, it’s easy to tweak dials and press buttons than hunt for controls on a phone screen.
Having said that, often I find myself on a reporting job where the only camera to hand is my phone. If I take a little time, I can get good pictures with that too. I’ve already noticed I’m less likely to pack the standalone camera when heading out to cover a story. I no longer keep it handy, charged and ready to go. That’s not the case with my phone.